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Boston doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago. Neither does its mayor.

Boston’s historic mayoral race encapsulates the story of the US’s changing demographics.

Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu speaks after voting on Tuesday, November 2.
Allison Dinner/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Boston’s mayoral race has been historic. For the first time, the city has elected a woman and a person of color as its mayor, in part thanks to its increasingly diverse electorate.

Voters on Tuesday elected city councilor and staunch progressive Michelle Wu as their new mayor; fellow city council member Annissa Essaibi George conceded the race in an election night speech. Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, ran on a more left-leaning platform of bringing universal child care and pre-K to the city, as well as free subway fare and rent control.

The election result is a reflection of the city’s changing demographics. In the last few decades, Boston has seen major population growth and a surge of new immigrants. Between 1990 and 2017, residents of color went from 40 percent of the city’s population to 53 percent, while white residents saw corresponding declines, according to a report from Boston Indicators, the Boston Foundation, UMass Boston, and the UMass Donahue Institute. The region — which has long struggled with problems with racism, including violent protests targeting school desegregation efforts in the 1970s and a persistent wealth gap between white and Black residents — is one of many that’s experienced such shifts in population.

Overall, Boston’s population grew by roughly 19 percent in that time frame. Much of that growth came from Latinos and Asian Americans, who saw their respective share of the population approximately double in less than three decades. The composition of white residents has changed as well: As more people move to Boston for jobs in burgeoning industries like biotech, the white population has grown more affluent and progressive compared to years past.

Boston’s demographic shifts mirror national trends. In the 2020 census, the proportion of the US population that identifies as white declined by about 9 percent compared to 2010, and 27 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country — including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Atlanta — were found to be minority white. By 2045, the US is expected to be minority white.

In Boston, population shifts have spurred notable changes in both the electorate and the officials who represent the city. As Boston’s demographics have changed, more candidates of color have also pursued — and won — political office.

In 2009, now-US Rep. Ayanna Pressley became the first woman of color ever elected to Boston’s City Council; since then at least six other women of color have won seats, too. In 2019, the 13-person City Council was comprised predominately women for the first time. That led to acting Mayor Kim Janey, who’s also served as City Council president, becoming Boston’s first Black leader. And this year, all four frontrunners in the city’s preliminary mayoral race were women of color.

Wu’s victory is a landmark moment for Boston, which previously lagged other major cities when it came to diversity in political representation, echoing the racial and gender disparities in Massachusetts government.

The election in Boston is indicative of broader national trends, including changing demographics across the country and a growing number of women of color who are running for, and winning, congressional and mayoral elections. Their victories highlight the burgeoning political power of a diverse voter base eager to see more representation in office.

“We’re seeing the beginning of the baton passing to a new generation,” said Tatishe Nteta, an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst. “This decade is going to be about those transitions.”

Boston’s election highlights the role of demographic change

In the last two decades, Boston has become majority minority, a change driven heavily by immigration. Between 1990 and 2017, the city’s Black population saw some declines, going from 23.8 percent to 23.1 percent, while the Latino population increased from 10.8 percent to 20.4 percent and the Asian American population rose from 5.2 percent to 9.4 percent.

Immigration from countries including China, Brazil, India, and the Dominican Republic — fueled by employment opportunities in industries from tech to health care — have been central to Boston’s growth in recent years.

“If it weren’t for new immigrants to the city, we wouldn’t have seen anywhere near the population rebound we’ve seen in the last 30 years,” said Luc Schuster, a senior director of Boston Indicators. Between 2010 and 2020, the city is estimated to have grown more than 9 percent overall, a reversal of the population declines it experienced in the past.

More white, affluent professionals who lean progressive have also increasingly settled in the city in recent years, as working-class white residents have moved or been displaced. The Boston Foundation report found that the greater Boston area lost nearly 350,000 white residents between 1990 and 2017 as people moved away from the region and as the number of white deaths surpassed the number of births.

The presence of these new residents has played a role in diluting the power of more conservative white voters, including some members of the Irish American and Italian American communities, who’ve long dominated the city’s politics.

Voter turnout is likely still catching up to both of these trends, experts tell Vox.

According to Rich Parr, research director at the MassINC Polling Group, the electorate is likely still majority white, though likely only by a small margin. Parr estimated that 62 percent of likely voters were white in the survey sample he used in 2013, compared to 51 percent for 2021’s general election poll. Until more immigrants — and their children — are able to vote, the city’s population changes won’t completely translate to the ballot box.

While turnout among newer progressive, white voters has also been lower in past elections, it is steadily increasing, Bay State Banner’s Yawu Miller writes for GBH. And the growing power of Black, Asian American, and Latino voters in the city, combined with the mobilization of white progressives, is viewed as central to boosting this year’s historic mayoral slate and a Wu victory, Miller explains.

These demographic shifts have both contributed to and coincided with the rise of women of color in Boston politics. In the last decade, more women of color have run for elected office and succeeded. In 2009, Pressley’s city council win marked a watershed moment: That year, she beat out a large pool of diverse candidates to become the first Black woman elected to the role.

UMass Boston political scientist Erin O’Brien credits Pressley’s 2009 victory as opening the door for other women candidates of color, including Wu and Essaibi George. “People for a long time found it problematic that the city council looked the way it did. But once someone wins, that begets other successes,” O’Brien said.

Then-Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks during a meeting at Boston City Hall in 2016.
Elise Amendola/AP

The increasing presence of women and people of color on the city council — and in other local offices — has been critical to strengthen a pipeline of talent for other positions. Because Wu and Essaibi George had already established themselves on the council and had proven policy track records, their mayoral runs had respectively solid foundations to build upon. Pressley’s 2018 congressional victory against longtime Rep. Mike Capuano also set a precedent for a successful campaign focusing on identity and confronting a popular incumbent.

“We’ve seen a rapid transformation of Boston politics,” Wu previously told the Associated Press. “It’s not just that more candidates are raising their hands to run for office. It’s also that the political ecosystem has completely changed.”

Women of color have surged in political races in recent years

The Boston mayoral race is part of a larger trend across the country: In numerous districts and cities, more women of color are pursuing political offices, and voter bases are becoming more diverse.

In 2020, a record number of women of color including Black, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women ran for congressional offices. And that same year, a record number of women of color were elected to these roles including members of both parties. In the last five years, too, several major cities — including San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta — have elected women of color as mayors. And many of this year’s mayoral races also included women of color as candidates including elections in Seattle, Buffalo, and Atlanta.

On both fronts, there are still major disparities. Women make up 51 percent of the US population, but only 27 percent of Congress. Only about 9 percent of congressional lawmakers are women of color. Among mayors of the top 100 largest cities, 31 percent are women and 14 percent are women of color.

Women of color often face specific challenges while campaigning, including struggling with fundraising and coded questions about electability. The diverse slate of candidates in Boston has helped to normalize women of color vying for this office and neutralize electability claims.

At the same time, representation has been found to be meaningful to voters and to have a multiplier effect: When women are elected to statewide office, more women pursue roles in the state legislature four years down the line, according to research by Amelia Showalter, the digital analytics director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

This certainly appears to have been the case in Boston. And the city’s historic election — along with other gains in representation made in the last few years — sets the stage for even more candidates to consider running in the future, while encapsulating how the city itself is changing.

“The candidates in the mayoral race, in some ways, tell the story of Boston,” said Nteta.

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